Mutiat Olaniyan didn’t hesitate for a second. She wanted to be part of the program.
A student in Western’s Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing, Olaniyan learned in class about a new volunteer placement that would allow students the opportunity to gain experience in primary care – and help promote cancer screening within the community.
She jumped at the chance. And she’s glad she did.
“It was my first real-life nursing experience in community health, and it was both educating and enlightening,” said Olaniyan, who spent six weeks last spring at Strathroy Caradoc Family Medicine, one of 20 clinics within the Thames Valley Family Health Team.
“We had an orientation, we learned how to go through the cancer screening process, and we got to interact with patients directly. It was an incredible experience, and it better prepared me for the placement I had the next month.”
Three students made up the first cohort of the School of Nursing’s new volunteer cancer screening program last winter – a pilot project in partnership with Cancer Care Ontario (CCO).
Two students were placed in Strathroy, while a third worked at Byron Family Medical Centre. All three are part of Western’s 19-month Compressed Time Frame program for a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BScN).
Primarily, the students made phone calls to patients who were due for cervical, breast or colon cancer screenings. The goals? Let the patients know they were due, remind them of the importance of cancer screening and answer any questions, and then take steps to set up screenings.
The students scheduled appointments for cervical cancer screening (pap smears), helped provide requisitions for mammograms at breast screening locations, and organized the mailing out of fecal immunochemical test (FIT) kits for colon cancer screening.
“I felt really privileged to be able to do this,” said Olaniyan. “There were different types of responses. Some people weren’t aware of it, some didn’t know about the benefits, and some were scared. That’s where the nursing education comes in.
“It’s not our responsibility as healthcare workers to compel people to do things against their wishes, but it’s about giving them the information and leaving it open for them to be able to make (informed) choices.”
People across Ontario receive letters in the mail from CCO letting them know they’re due for certain cancer screenings. But, for a number of reasons, those letters go unnoticed or don’t result in folks scheduling screenings. That’s where the students came in, said Amy Horton, associate director, undergraduate programs at the School of Nursing.
“Our students were contacting those folks who hadn’t taken any action yet. So, they were reaching out to say, ‘Hey, you’re due, this is really important … this is why … this is what the screening is, and this is how it can affect your health in a positive way,’” said Horton. “They provided that personalized approach and some health teaching if people had questions.”
During their volunteer placements, the students helped fill a gap in primary care, where this type of work can fall through the cracks when a clinic is busy – which was the case even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Cancer screenings, too, were already down pre-pandemic, according to the CCO. Horton says COVID-19 just exacerbated that issue.
“I think that’s why this is a really timely (partnership). It’s a really beautiful collaboration, given what COVID has done to our health-care system,” said Horton. “This type of program allows primary care to catch up on other things while our students, who are very well-equipped with therapeutic communication, building relationships and health teaching, work to hopefully make a difference in (increasing) those cancer screening rates.”
Making an impact on the community
In just six weeks, the three students did make an impact. They reached a few hundred people overdue for screenings, booked appointments, helped with requisitions, and shared important information with patients.
Stephanie Jones, a registered nurse within the Thames Valley Family Health Team, was very happy with the work the students did during their volunteer placements – two of them under her supervision.
“We often get long lists from CCO, and it’s a lot of administrative work for the physicians and staff to follow up,” said Jones. “We’d been looking for different ways to partner with academic institutions, and this (program) was great. It was really helpful to have the students. We had more physicians want to be involved than we could provide a student.”
Expanding the program is something all parties seem eager to pursue. Recruitment is underway for this year’s cohort, and the students will complete their volunteer placements during the Winter 2024 term.
“We’re still in the pilot stages of this, but I’m hoping it grows,” said Horton. “What we want to get to is sort of a mentoring situation where those students who have gone into the primary care clinics can orient the new students in the program.
“I’m proud of the students who take this on and volunteer their time. To do this on top of their schoolwork is really commendable. We also really value the collaboration with CCO and the primary care clinics that are part of this pilot with us. Hopefully it will continue to grow and make even more of a difference.”
Olaniyan can certainly see the difference the program could make. Completing the program really opened her eyes to the impact a cancer screening program can have.
“Community nursing is very important. People have to know more about (cancer screening),” Olaniyan said. “There has to be awareness, and this is one of the ways people can learn about it.
“This is what just three students did within six weeks. Imagine if we had, say, 50 students doing this at the same time. The outreach is going to be greater, and the impact will be felt even more.”